The pull of some Champ Car markets is so strong, it has the owner of a prominent Indy Racing League team talking about launching a cooperative effort with a team from the rival open-wheel racing series. And he's urging other IRL teams to do the same.
Chip Ganassi last month proposed IRL and Champ Car teams partner so they can compete in both series' biggest races and perhaps even square off for a cross-series championship.
Ganassi told Speed TV that Champ Car races in markets such as Laguna Beach, Calif., and Toronto are especially attractive to his team and his sponsors, including Target stores.
"It wasn't too long ago the pull of Indianapolis was so great it was drawing teams over to the IRL," said Tim Frost, president of Frost Motorsports, a Chicago-based motorsports business consultancy. "You now may be seeing a reversal of fortune."
Ganassi team officials said they have no interest in racing the Champ Car series full time, but added they'd like to see the heavyweights of both series square off.
Since the cars and engines of the two open-wheel series aren't compatible, Ganassi has come up with a ride-sharing plan. Ganassi proposed that the IRL's top teams prepare two cars each for Champ Car teams to use in select IRL races, including the Indianapolis 500. He suggested Champ Car teams would reciprocate by preparing two cars each for their IRL partner teams. And he suggested team owners could throw money into a $500,000 pool and race for it.
"Chip sees the importance in racing against the biggest and best teams there are in the sport," said Mike Hull, Target Chip Ganassi Racing managing director. "That's what creates equity for all of us. We're not going anywhere with two series running in parallel."
Ganassi's proclamation comes at a time when the IRL is basking in some good news. Television viewership increased 26 percent in 2005, its live race attendance climbed 17 percent, and merchandise sales rose 50 percent, according to league officials. Traffic at the IRL-run Web site is also up a whopping 300 percent.
Still, industry observers said, Ganassi's comments show there is serious discontent among the teams.
A shorter race schedule next season means some key Western markets have been lost for 2006 and several teams have been forced to cut staff. The 2006 IRL schedule was trimmed from 17 races to 14 at the behest of the series' television partners. The shorter schedule will result in more consecutive weekends of IRL telecasts, which is expected to build viewership.
Adding to teams' concerns, Detroitbased Chevrolet left the series after the 2005 season and Japan-based Toyota announced it is departing after 2006, leaving many teams scrambling for an engine manufacturer and sponsorships.
"This is not a hobby for Chip; it's a business," said Derek Daly, a former race car driver and longtime motorsports commentator, including work locally for WISH-TV Channel 8. "I'm sure he's merely voicing the concerns of his sponsors. I think these comments show a real frustration that maybe is coming to a boiling point."
Kevin Savoree, co-owner of Andretti Green Racing, thinks it would be impossible to work co-op deals with Champ Car teams from a sponsorship, legal and logistical perspective. He said teams need to focus on activating sponsorships in the markets the IRL does race in, not chase farfetched cross-pollination schemes.
Doug Boles, COO of Indianapolis-based Panther Racing, which has cut its staff by 15 since the end of the season due to schedule contraction, said something must be done to increase the series' exposure. Markets in Canada, Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Southern California are prime spots for growth, he said.
"We've made some great strides this year, but there's concern about how the series grows from here, and what the series looks like in three, five and 10 years," Boles said.
The new man on the hot seat for the IRL is Mike Ringham, who was hired last month to replace the league's departed vice president of marketing, Bill Long.
Ringham comes to the IRL from Coca-Cola Co., where he was the senior manager of motorsports marketing. IRL spokesman John Griffin said Ringham and his new staff are working on a marketing strategy they hope to have done by month's end.